Pem on Partisanship: Right, wrong or more necessary than ever?


By Pem Schaeffer

Several years ago, I heard Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia being interviewed about so-called “moderate” judges.

“What is a moderate interpretation of the text?” Scalia said. “Halfway between what it really means and what you’d like it to mean? There is no such thing as a moderate interpretation of the text. Would you ask a lawyer, ‘Draw me a moderate contract?’ The only way the word has any meaning is if you are looking for someone to write a law, to write a constitution, rather than to interpret one.”

To make this concept more personal, how you would feel about “moderate” wedding vows? This might mean that while your spouse could be unfaithful in special situations, you must be faithful no matter what. This would make the interpretation of your marriage vow, as Scalia says, halfway between what it really means and what your spouse would like it to mean. How does that sound?

Or how about an oath of office you take when being sworn in as a public official, in which you promise to protect, preserve and defend the Constitution? A moderate position would be that you must adhere to your vow, but your colleague can ignore it when she chooses, as long as it’s in pursuit of a “greater good.” Or vice versa.

I remembered Scalia’s words in the midst of the current hand wringing over “hyper-partisanship” and the related romanticizing of so-called “independents.” The latter come in at least two versions.

First, there are those who affiliate with an established party, but claim an independent streak when it comes to party cohesion and orthodoxy. Take Maine’s Republican Senators, who have long asserted their proud independence “in the tradition of Margaret Chase Smith, Bill Cohen and Ed Muskie.”

To such independent thinkers, the Constitution is often just a suggestion. Our two senators believe in Republican principles—except when they get in the way. I’ll never forget the tortured logic in the letters I got from them in which they attempted to rationalize their support for partial-term abortion some years ago.

The second type of independent declares their freedom from party affiliation of any sort. These days, we have Brunswick’s own Angus King cloaking himself in the lily-white robes of a “proud independent” as he runs for the senate seat being vacated by Olympia Snowe. And if we are to believe her, she’s calling it quits because she’s had it with the partisan squabbling in Washington. She must be tired of sticking up for her short list of principles.

An ordinary citizen registering “unenrolled” for voting purposes is one thing. Claiming to be an independent as a candidate is quite another, especially in this age, where partisanship is increasingly portrayed as severe and extreme, if not a fatal defect in one’s approach towards governance. After all, if you don’t have elastic principles, how can sacred “common ground” be found?

As I see it, declaring yourself an independent is the political equivalent of visible body piercings and tattoos. “Hey, look at me! I’m different from all the others!” Not to mention that doing so allows one to bypass the often expensive and contentious primary process for organized political parties.

Angus King exemplifies this category: virtually no one doubts his progressive, Democrat ideology, yet he has “Independent” tattooed figuratively on his forehead.

I have my own view of the “organized” parties. If asked, I identify myself as a conservative, rather than by party affiliation, though I am a registered Republican. I understand that political parties exist to bring some structure and order (chaotic or not) to our established system of governance.

The “unenrolled,” I believe, choose not to subject themselves to the solicitations and pronouncements of the legally established parties. I have no problem with this. Nevertheless, when elected officials or candidates profess “independence,” it doesn’t take much to see it as opportunism, and often blatant and cynical in nature.

Angus King has embraced independent status as a career path. Others, like Charlie Crist, Arlen Spector and even Joe Lieberman, use it as a variation on their established identities. Clearly, addiction to political power is a powerful force, and it can cause some to sell whatever needs to be sold to hang on to it.

In the last few decades, we’ve heard terms like “triangulation” and “the third way” used in political discourse, inspired by the master of such things, William Jefferson Clinton. But let’s be clear. When a bill finally comes up for a vote, the options are pretty straightforward: you either oppose it or you support it. There are calculating opportunists who find a third option, voting “absent” or “present”—we have one currently serving as our President.

The point is that when you declare yourself an independent, you have no real option but to align yourself with one major party or the other when the roll is called on a bill. You have one vote, and you cannot split it as the mood suits you.

I consider that a candidate claiming to be an independent does so for at least two reasons: first, as mentioned earlier, to skate around the rules and complications associated with the process by which recognized parties nominate candidates for office; and second, to make it clear to the entrenched ruling class that they’re open to all bids for their loyalties when it comes to deciding with whom to align and caucus, in hopes of gaining power via the committee system.

How many times have you seen a candidate suddenly embrace “independence” when he was stymied by his native party’s primary process?

We’re hearing from every corner that hyper-partisanship is killing off the ability to “get things done on behalf of the people,” and that it’s the reason why long-standing ruling elites are walking away from their comfy and secure positions, Olympia Snowe not least amongst them. They act as if taking a stand and embracing unalienable principles is not in the best interests of the people or, in a larger sense, America. Or, for that matter, not getting things done—as in leaving things alone on behalf of the people.

You don’t like polarization or divisiveness or partisanship? You mean you don’t like debate? What would you prefer, a benevolent despot, a monarchy, tyranny?

Claims of partisanship almost always mean: “I don’t know why those folks don’t agree with me.” How many times have you heard a partisan say “I’m voting with the other guys in a spirit of bi-partisanship” versus “We wish the other guys would join with us in a spirit of bipartisanship.”

We make the case that contempt for polarization couldn’t be more wrong. It all boils down to the stakes.

Many of us participate in weekly or monthly poker games, where you might win or lose no more than 10 or 20 dollars. You have a few beers, smoke a cigar and renew your bonds with friends without much concern for the outcome.

With stakes this small, the political inclinations of those at the table are irrelevant—other than sparking lively conversation—and the outcome of the game, win or lose, will have no effect on your life, your future or that of your children or your country.

Now let’s raise the stakes. Let’s suppose you’re putting your retirement funding on the table, your lifelong medical care, your children’s financial security, your career prospects, the value of the national currency and your ability to provide housing, food and shelter for your family. Not to mention the survival of the private sector and the energy needed to keep it humming and generating jobs, wealth, and tax revenues to fund government and the public sector.

Now every hand takes on new meaning, and the outcome of the game is a matter of survival.

When one of your buddies advocates for a European-style welfare state, an unconstrained government and the “living nature” of our Constitution, you’re outraged; you grew up believing that government is to be the port of last resort.

Then a good friend jumps in and says that government exists only to protect and preserve our fundamental rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He says that the purpose of the Constitution is to constrain politicians and government because, otherwise, liberty will be lost.

You jump across the table to plant a kiss on his forehead and pump your fists in the air because with the stakes on the table, how the game is played now has consequences of immeasurable and profound magnitude. And you have to be more vigilant than ever, with your will and your wits concentrated to protect your interests.

We need to ask what principles can be sacrificed on the altar of independence, bipartisanship and common ground? For example:

Which traditional GOP principles are negotiable?

Which principles of government living within its means are negotiable?

Which principles of life, liberty and limited government are negotiable?

Which passages in the constitution are negotiable and which aren’t?

Which principles of ethics and integrity are negotiable?

And, returning to an opening point, are marriage vows and an oath of office flexible and negotiable?

How about compromise? How do you compromise on right versus wrong and liberty versus tyranny? How do you compromise on living within your means versus not living within your means? How do you compromise on the American Dream versus the downfall of our nation?

We’re not talking about whether the national speed limit should be 65 or 70 here; we’re not discussing the voting age or retirement age. We’re dealing with fundamental, profound doctrines of American governance, and the consequences for our future as individuals and a nation of exceptional principles. We’re talking about whether the government serves us or we serve the government—is there anything more essential and consequential in our governance and our futures?

“Political polarization” is, in essence, a term used to denigrate strong principles. But as the country song says, “You’ve got to stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything.” A tired cliché perhaps, but a truism is a truism.

As for me, I don’t want compromise in the profound issues of our time. I want uncompromising devotion and commitment to the sacred principles on which we were founded and the constraints imposed by our Constitution, and I want determination to live within our means.

When it comes to the fiscal underpinnings of our currency and our economy; when it comes to our energy supply and its ability to fuel our economy and our transportation; when it comes to the vitality of the private enterprise system and what it has done to improve the quality of life for all Americans and much of the world population; when it comes to our health care and the innovation that makes it the most advanced in our world; when it comes to preserving our sacred freedoms; when it comes to the health and cost of our food supply; when it comes to our military and its readiness and technology currency; when it comes to the survival of America as a free, independent and prosperous nation; when it comes to realizing the promise of our founders and their founding documents; when it comes to the relationship between government and the governed, I don’t want compromise or bipartisanship or “common ground.”

I want principle.

If that means being a partisan and digging your heels in, so be it. Think of it as protecting your family, your homestead, your well-being and your life and your liberty from those who would endanger or take them away from you. Because when you come right down to it, that’s the nature of the choice we face today.

Wouldn’t you dig your heels in under these circumstances? And shouldn’t you expect your representatives to do the same?

It’s common for someone of my advanced age to draw upon the wisdom of others who have come before. So I leave you with this nugget from Barry Goldwater, spoken nearly 50 years ago.  His sentiment may be even more timely than it was then.

“I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

— Senator Barry Goldwater

Pem Schaeffer is a retired systems engineer and business development leader. He blogs at and can be contacted at




  1. My sentiments EXACTLY,Pem.
    I’ve likened independents to a customer looking at the menu in a restaurant and saying to the waiter,” Well I don’t want the haddock,I don’t want the sirloin, I don’t want…..” but never saying what he DOES want!
    And,in my experience, the “independent” doesn’t even want to be informed! I’ve tried.

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